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The New World Pantheon

So You Think You Know Superheroes?

By far, the fastest growing genre of movies and entertainment right now is that of the superhero epic.  We have superheroes on the brain, it seems.  It’s not surprising, really; hero worship has been an element of human society for many thousands of years.  It’s what made us great hunters on the plains, it’s what spurred us to learn more and more about our environment, and it’s ultimately what led to our current ideas of religion and celebrity.  We consistently elevate those we perceive as our betters to a position of cultural authority, whether they deserve such reverence or not.  So, in a time like this, when it’s near impossible to participate in the conversations of the day without encountering someone who’s presented as a real life superhero – though perhaps without the powers – it stands to reason that this need we have to create a class of humans who are better than us would manifest itself on the big screen.

It is strange though, that the people among us who actually do have superpowers are often treated as freaks and pariahs.  In fact, I’m betting many of you reading this weren’t aware that such people even exist.  Of course, the Marvel and DC comic superheroes are larger than life, and that’s how they’re supposed to be.  So you won’t see any (credible) cases of people flying, or teleporting, or lifting buses, but there are some people in this world who can do some incredible things.

There’s the Brazilian woman who cries crystal tears and no one knows why.  And there’s the real life Ice Man, Wim Hof from The Netherlands, who can withstand the cold better than anyone.  There’s also the deep diver and marathon swimmer, Dave Mullens, who can literally swim like a fish.  Or how about the German boy who, because of a rare genetic disorder, makes most bodybuilders feel shame.  There are lots of people out there who have what in the comic books would be called superpowers, but which in real life are more like disabilities.  Take the math student who not only survived without 95% of his brain, but he functioned normally, and even excelled in his studies.  And he’s not alone.  There are several others, who, like him, are afflicted with hydrocephalus.  Which is a condition that causes an abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the cranial vault.  They do have brains, but they’re drastically smaller than what’s considered normal.  The space in their skull that would otherwise be filled with grey matter, is actually filled with fluid, which itself plays a crucial role in neurochemistry.  The condition is rare, but it has been described by neuroscientists a few times in the last one hundred years, and they’re just as baffled by it as you and I.

Medical oddities notwithstanding (though most comic book superheroes are just that, medical oddities), there is potential for real superpowers to emerge from our steady evolutionary march through time.

Some time ago I discussed the possibility of a new species of human developing from extended space exploration.  Specifically the MarsOne mission.  When any group of a single species is separated from the main population, over time the two groups will evolve along different paths, eventually becoming distinctly different species.  This is called speciation, and it happens all the time, and it could happen to us if a portion of our population were to permanently leave Earth, to make a new home on another planet – a planet with drastically different environmental conditions, such as different gravity values, atmospheric content, even radiation levels.  Who knows how long it might take new selection pressures to push that group into a new evolutionary niche?  Fifty generations?  A hundred?  A thousand?  However long it takes, it will happen eventually (provided the group remains isolated from Earth’s population), and who knows how their genes will adapt to better suit that environment.  Shouldn’t we consider the potential genetic fallout of space colonisation?

The same thing could actually happen here on Earth too, though the changes to the splinter group’s genetics might not be readily apparent at first.

In the Bay of Bengal, between Myanmar and Indonesia, sits a little tree covered land mass called North Sentinel Island.  It doesn’t look like much on a map, and even if you check it out on Google Earth, you won’t see much, other than trees and what appears to be a world class white sand beach ringing the island.  However, if you actually went to the island you’d be in for a surprise, and then you’d likely be killed.  The inhabitants of North Sentinel, who number somewhere between 50 and 600 individuals are, shall we say, not fans of the drop-in.  Almost everyone who has set foot on that island has been brutally murdered with spears and arrows.  The Sentinelese, as they’ve come to be known, are one of, if not the oldest uncontacted tribe of indigenous people on the planet.  The island officially belongs to India, and special laws have been enacted to prevent outsiders from coming into contact with the especially xenophobic Sentinelese.  This is for our safety as much as theirs.  Since they’ve been physically isolated from the rest of humanity for thousands of years, they haven’t developed the same immunities to disease as the rest of us have over millennia, and even the most benign flu bug could wipe them out overnight.

But that highlights the fact that they’ve evolved differently than us.  The extent to those differences is entirely unknown, since study is currently impossible, but it’s virtually guaranteed that there are differences between us, however subtle they may be.  But we can speculate…

Did you know that humans, all humans, have the capacity for bioluminescence?  In fact, not only do we have the capacity for it, we do it regularly.  It’s just that the light emitted is too weak to see with the naked eye.  It’s possible for scientists to observe it, and indeed some have studied it and apparently human bioluminescence peaks daily, in mid-afternoon.  This ability seems to be a remnant of a time long before the emergence of Homo sapiens, and perhaps suggests a vestigial adaptation to darkness, an adaptation that’s no longer needed by us.

But what if the Sentinelese, who have no discernable technology, developed an enhanced bioluminescence ability to the point that it’s become useful to them in the dark of night on that lonely island?

phytoplankton bioluminescence in Maldives – January 2014

As mentioned, that’s pure speculation; there’s really no reason to think that they actually have developed that ability or anything like it, given that the pool of genetic characteristics they have at their disposal is nearly endless, but thinking about the possibilities opens our minds a wider worldview, and allows us to better plan for our own future.  If we can see the possibilities more clearly, we can work to make sure that we evolve along a path that remains favourable for our survival.  And the current state of genetic research and of our ability to manipulate our own genome might suggest that we really do have superheroes in our future.

Editor - Author
  1. New Human Species
    You have brought up an interesting question. At what point does the human species diverge into subspecies, or varieties on the way to becoming another species. Or, are there currently one or more species or subspecies of humans? I am not so sure that whoever decided the current human population was made up of just one species was correct. Most certainly we have no trouble calling those humanoid subspecies that are extinct a separate species, e.g., Homo neanderthalensis, Homo heidelbergensis, but we don’t seem to want to acknowledge that there may be one or more ‘human’ species or subspecies living on earth at the present time. Interbreeding may not be the best criterion to classify humans as one species. Other species interbreed, e.g., equines, bovines, canines, felines and often produce viable offspring.

    1. Sorry to burst your bubble,
      Sorry to burst your bubble, but modern humans (homo sapiens) are classified as a single species not as a logical extension of interbreeding, but as a conclusive fact of genetics. We are a single species, and there is a defined point at which speciation has or will occur. That point is when interbreeding is no longer genetically viable.

      There is a link in the above that provides an explanation.

      1. No Bubble
        Actually I have no bubble to burst. I am just questioning the current paradigm that requires a belief that all modern humans and future humans as they may evolve are one species. Apparently you are not aware Martin, that interbreeding does occur between animals of different species. For example, Lions and Tigers can interbreed. Horses and donkeys interbreed. Dogs breed with wolves and coyotes. According to your definition, lions and tigers etc. are the same species as well as any other two species that can produce viable offspring. Contrary to what you may believe there are genetic differences between human races. Just have your genome analyzed and you may find that many races make up your ancestry. How do you think that can be determined if the genetics is the same in all humans. There are differences. Anyway why is it anathema to think that the human population may be composed of subspecies and varietal forms? It seems obvious to me.

        1. Horses and donkeys are of the
          Horses and donkeys are of the same taxonomic family (barely, which is why their offspring, mules, are barren), as are lions and tigers (they’re both of the family Felidae. The level of speciation I referred to in the article is between the Family and Order level of biological classification. It’s only on that scale that interbreeding becomes impossible, and the impossibility of interbreeding is the mark of speciation. That fact was implied in the article, as I mistakenly thought this was common knowledge.

          As to your question, it’s anathema because that very idea is the core principle of eugenics, which led to the classification of people along the fictional construct of race. That’s a dangerous slope to stand above.

          1. Species not Family
            I thought we were talking about different species within a family, order etc. Perhaps you are a little bit confused. Cross-breeding between ‘families’ probably does not occur but it does occur between species, subspecies and varietal forms. I am not going to belabor this point any further.

            The construct of race is not fictional and is commonly applied to differing groups of animals within a species. Whether or not it is a “core principle of eugenics” is not part of my comment. That is another topic entirely.

            Since, as you say, the concept of race is a “dangerous slope to stand above” (?) then it seems to me you are implying that certain ideas or thoughts are dangerous and should not be entertained. Whether we like the concept of speciation within the human population or not, it is still open to discussion.

            I think one needs to remember that taxonomy is an artificial construct and as such is regularly changing,

          2. One More Point
            Those who study speciation within the human population tend to agree that probably interbreeding occurred between Homo neanderthalensis, Homo sapiens, and other possible species of Homo living at the same time and I believe genetic evidence of Neanderthal Man has been found in the modern human genome.

            When considering human speciation and speciation in general, one has to get beyond thinking in terms of better or worse, higher or lower, more developed or less developed. All animals speciate in response to, primarily, the internal and external environments they find themselves in. Within those environments, those that survive have evolved to be the best that they can be within that environment. To compare human species is like comparing a peach and a plum. They are not the same thing. Each excels in whatever it is, wherever it is.

            The modern human varieties were well on their way to becoming more and more separate in their genetic makeup. Had each human variety continued to remain isolated, human speciation would have continued and been more pronounced. But because of migration of differing groups and human bondage resulting in interbreeding , differences both phenotypically and genotypically were neutralized to a greater or lesser degree so that in many areas of the world, the human species is now seen as a blend of several or many distinct varieties of human primates. As previously mentioned, an example of this blending of varieties is seen in the recent past as Homo neanderthalensis, Homo sapiens and Cro-Magnum humans lived within the same territorial range sharing their genomes.

            Those who define race as skin color are simplistically childish in their understanding of what scientists mean when they consider race. The dictionary definition of a race is “a plant or animal population that differs from others of the same species in the frequency of hereditary traits”. Following this rather broad definition, the human species is undoubtedly composed of different ‘races’.

            Had an alien Darwin or Linnaeus arrived on this planet 3,000 years ago, my guess is that they would have classified humans into several distinct species or subspecies. Perhaps because of religious reasons to consider ‘man’ as a single creation, based primarily upon Biblical texts, earth’s Darwin and Linnaeus and others continued to taxonomically regard all humans as one species.

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